We weren’t completely in the clear by a long shot. Realistically, we might never be. But with both Morse Code and Craig L. Spiers out of the picture, vanished from the face of the Earth as far as their bosses could tell, we did have a little breathing room–and took advantage of it, to the max.
Jack and I had run the packets of DNA material and the Spiers ID down to Missoula. In the secret back room of the Half Castle restaurant, Mr. Gray had listened to what we had to say…and had thoughtfully returned a few comments of his own.
“The DoD is one thing, gentlemen. Taking on the Sinaloa Cartel is quite another. Knowing they’re involved, the hackers are going to be triple extra careful. Tiptoeing through the tulips of the freaking Internet, you might say.”
Hill and I both nodded, unwilling to break the man’s flow. If he was going to provide free commentary–uncharacteristic for him–then we were dang sure going to milk it for all it was worth. Of course, I’d started the ball rolling by mentioning the Cartel up front. Volunteering info wasn’t the usual order of business, but we figured the Half Castle had a right to know. If they got blown off the map and we hadn’t warned them who we were messing with, the guilt factor would have been somewhere between Catholic and Jewish.
Nobody needs that.
“All I’m saying,” he continued, “is that this one is going to take a while. Go home and get some rest.”
Sounded good, so we did…until the next morning, when Jennifer Trace called us in to a breakfast meeting at the usual spot, the ranch house kitchen.
It was all small talk until the dishes were cleared and the second pot of coffee was making the rounds. Good stuff, this home coffee. We’d made the mistake of eating at Denny’s on this last run. The restaurant chain had changed their coffee. Used to be fine slurping, but now they’d gone to a lighter and a darker roast…and even the darker roast tasted like a wrung-out dishrag. I’d liked the new mugs when I saw them, even thought about buying a few.
Not after tasting the ragwater, though. It was just too nasty-weak for words.
“Gentlemen and lady,” the widow Trace announced, getting the ball rolling, “we have Sam’s will to read.”
She let the words hang in the air for a bit, waiting for the responses she must have known would be coming.
Sissy spoke up first. “Jennifer, don’t wills usually get read in, um, lawyers’ offices? And why am I here? Sam didn’t know me from Adam’s off ox.”
Jennifer twinkled at her. “Neither Sam nor I ever trusted any lawyer farther than we could throw the bugger. As for you being here, no, you’re not in the will. But you’ve been a key part of our, shall we say, military response to the forces of evil. Heck, girl, you’ve taken out four of the enemy–five, if you count the wolf that was going fang-to-fang with Tree’s Arkansas toothpick. No way on God’s green earth you get away with doing that and having nothing to show for it.”
“I’ve got all of you alive to show for it.” Under the table, my girl rested her hand on my thigh. Firmly.
“True. But this is a material world, honey. You deserve a material reward. So that gelding you were riding, Ditz? He’s yours. And the tack, the saddle and bridle and all. Those, too. And this.”
Jennifer reached down to flip the lid open on a small chest that was sitting beside her chair. She lifted out a necklace, then stood, moving around the table to place it over Sissy’s head.
You could have heard a snowflake drop.
This was no ordinary necklace. More than two dozen grizzly bear claws, strung on a simple rawhide thong in the Plains fashion. The claws were obviously old, very old indeed, with that soft, smooth lustre such things can only acquire over time.
Jennifer returned to her seat, leaning her elbows on the table as she continued. “Sam and I got that in trade a good twenty, twenty-five years ago. Swapped an Indian bronc rider down on his luck a good saddle for it, plus a fair bit of cash to boot. The cowboy was Mandan, but he told us it wasn’t from his tribe. The history he had on it was that his ancestors had taken it from a fierce Arikara warrior. As you know, being part Arikara yourself, they and the neighboring Mandan were longstanding enemies, long before Lewis and Clark. They share the same reservation now, along with the Hidatsa, but it didn’t used to be that way.
“He told me that the dead Arikara had killed four Mandan, of a party of more than thirty who had come to raid their farms, before he fell–and a fifth after he was down, before life left him entirely. The Arikara’s name, translated to English, was Red Bear, a cousin to the grandfather of the famous Bear’s Belly.
“Two men came to me in my dreams last night, Sissy. One was Sam. The other was that Mandan cowboy, who died years ago. I forget his name, but he and my husband came to me as one, telling me that you must have this necklace that traces back to your people, through Bear’s Belly and beyond, and which is now returned to the Arikara.”
Sissy could not speak, except with her eyes, from which tears ran downward over her high-boned cheeks in steady streams. My own face was wet as well, and Jack’s eyes didn’t look all that dry, either.
I don’t know how long the silence lasted. Finally, wiping the tears away with the back of one hand while pressing the grizzly bear claws to her chest with the other, she whispered, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Bear Warrior,” Jennifer smiled. Then she plucked the next item out of the chest, Sam’s will itself, and we got down to business.
After the usual whereto’s and why-for’s in standard boiler plate legalese, the will was pretty simple. The rotten kids got nothing. Mrs. Trace got everything that wasn’t nailed down and most of what was, which only made sense. For one thing, they’d been a true team from the get-go. For another, the will took advantage of a special loophole in the law that allowed a rancher to pass on everything to his life partner without getting taxed in the doing of it.
Since the Trace ranch property was worth somewhere between twenty and thirty million dollars, that made a whole lot of sense. The 2012 estate tax exemption only came to $5,120,000. No way could the ranch have stayed in business if Jennifer had needed to pony up the lion’s share of the remaining fifteen to twenty-five million.
The death tax, I realized at the tender age of almost twenty-five, truly sucks.
But the Traces had gotten around it rather neatly.
“You must have some use for accountants, eh? Is that who figured out the way to duck the tax bite?” I asked, though it really wasn’t any of my business.
Jennifer grinned. “Nah. That was another rancher, a guy from Missouri, who told us how to do it. Then we confirmed it with a tax lawyer. Just because we don’t trust laywers doesn’t mean we never used ’em when the need was there. Then we ran it by our accountant as well, and when it turned out he didn’t know what we were talking about, we switched accountants.”
“Ah.” I nodded, and shut up.
“However,” the widow continued, “we’re just now getting to the good part. Rodeo Iron. Prior to Sam’s death, B.J. and Sam each owned 40 percent, with Tree owning the remaining 20. My husband and I talked about it–I think he knew his time was coming, I really do, and he wanted to have things settled ahead of time. We talked about Rodeo Iron.
“Frankly, I didn’t think I should have anything to do with it. I know cattle, I know horses, I know how to judge bucking stock and mend fence and put up hay and all that. But welding? Not a clue. Not my thing. Sales isn’t either, unless it’s hay or broncs or bulls or calves or some such, where I’m talking to people I’ve known for decades.
“So we agreed. Sam’s 40 percent would be split right down the middle, 20 to B.J., 20 to Tree. Which leaves the iron operation entirely in your hands, 60-40, Hennessy and Jackson.”
My man mountain of an uncle looked stunned. He’d had that kind of control in Connecticutt, but that was a smaller business and one he’d personally built from the ground up. This was–
“Jen,” I asked, wondering if I looked as worried as I felt, “what about taxes on that? I mean, we turned a bit of profit last year, all right, but not enough to send Uncle Sam, you know, a hundred grand or whatever with our corporate tax return.”
“Not to worry,” she nodded as if I’d asked the only logical question there was. “Remember I said Sam and I switched accountants? Well, the new man is a whizbang with a calculator and an end run around the Revenooers. We sat down with him one afternoon in late December, showed him all the numbers. When he got done, Rodeo Iron’s net worth came out figured at a negative, three thousand dollars in the hole. From a tax standpoint, what you’re getting is officially worthless.”
B.J. got it. “Tree,” he explained, “we did well last year for a startup. But after wages were paid to you and me and the hourly welders, and travel expenses deducted for your sales runs, and the new equipment was expensed out…it doesn’t surprise me to hear the bottom line came out below the bar.”
That should have been the end of it, but no. “Jack,” Jennifer said quietly, looking the old Protector in the eye, “you’re in this, too.”
“I am?” My friend tried to keep his poker face, but I could tell he was surprised. Sissy was one thing, but….
“You are. Not in the will specifically, and no, I don’t have a grizzly bear claw necklace for you. But just three days before the ambush, Horace and Sam took a run down to Deer Lodge. Met with Allison Barker, who happens to own every bit of the land between your place and ours.”
I thought about that. We were talking two miles of territory, from the Y in the road–where the Trace land ended on the west side–to within a hundred yards of Hill’s buildings. We weren’t talking about any city lot; that much was certain.
“Allison has never been interested in selling before, but he and Sam went back a long ways. They cut a deal for the northern portion of Barker land, two full sections.”
“That’s good,” Hill rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That means, from now on, traveling between my place and yours, nobody has to cross land one of us doesn’t own. We’ll be next door neighbors.”
“Well, yes, but you don’t get it. Sam had a special contract drawn up. Paid cash for the place. There’s a provision in there that allows Horace, whenever he chooses, to build himself a cabin on that property and live out his days, or at least those days when he feels too stove up to fork a bronc or pull a calf.”
“Not yet!” The tracker hastened to interject. “I ain’t ready for a rocking chair yet, busted leg and bullet holes notwithstanding!”
Jack nodded. “That’s even better.”
“Truly it is,” Jennifer agreed, “but here’s the best part. Sam paid cash for that property. It’s free and clear.
“And it’s in your name.”
There wasn’t any snowflake-falling silence this time. This time, we all busted out in a round of applause, hooting and hollering loud enough they’d have heard us out in the bunkhouse if the hands hadn’t already been out on cow check.
Hill didn’t tear up, but he surely did look stunned. The land he’d owned for the past dozen years or so was a nice enough parcel, but only a quarter section, 160 acres all told. Now he found his holdings multiplied nine times over, just like that.
“You know,” he admitted, “I do believe I’m speechless.”
That night, in bed with the lights out and Sissy snuggled up right comfortable-like, I murmered softly.
“We done been bought.”
“What do you mean?” My Bear Warrior woman, or Bear Woman aka Bare Woman at the moment, sounded sincerely curious.
“It goes back to something Ghost told Jack one time. He said every man had his price, and he himself could be bought with trust. I figure that also applies to the lot of us–you, me, Jack, my uncle B.J. for that matter. We can all be bought with trust, and the Traces have done paid in full for us all, lock, stock, and barrel.”
She started shaking. Took me a moment to realize she was silently laughing, trying to hold it in. “What’s so funny?”
“You, baby. You just now figured that out?”
“Unh.” Here I’d thought I was being a genius, and Sissy was way ahead of me as usual. “Well…yeah. But that’s why I’m with an older woman, right? So you can teach me stuff?”
Her hand slipped around the back of my neck, cupping, holding me close. “Smart aleck. There ain’t but two years between us. But sure. C’mere. I’ll teach you stuff.”
The next couple of hours were purely educational.